Uncivil Wars: Lillian Hellman vs. Mary McCarthy and the Question of Julia

Author Lillian Hellman

Everyone’s memory is tricky and mine’s a little trickier than most --- Lillian Hellman

“A foremost literary fabulator of her generation, Lillian Hellman invented her life, so that by the end even she was uncertain about what had been true,” Joan Mellen.

In January 1980, a seemingly off the cuff remark by Mary McCarthy regarding Lillian Hellman sparked off a literary feud and a debate about truth, particularly in memoirs, that has raged on till this day.

McCarthy was a guest on the Dick Cavett show on PBS. The interview was begging to flag when Cavett asked McCarthy what writers she thought were overrated. Among the writers that she mentioned were Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck and Hellman who McCarthy said, "who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past." Cavett, of course, asked McCarthy what was overrated about Hellman. McCarthy replied that "Everything. I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

Mary McCarthy

It was the literary equivalent of the shot heard around the world. Hellman was watching that night and was incensed. She immediately called her friend, the writer John Hersey and told him of her intention of suing, inviting him to join her in the lawsuit (McCarthy had said a few derogatory words about Hersey's prose.) Hersey declined and tried to convince Hellman not to sue. Instead, Hellman slapped a $2.25MM lawsuit against not only McCarthy, but also the Educational Broadcasting System and Dick Cavett. The lawsuit claimed that McCarthy's statement was "false, made with ill-will, with malice, with knowledge of its falsity, with careless disregard of its truth, and with the intent to injure the plaintiff personally and professionally."

McCarthy, at first thought the lawsuit, was a joke. When she realized the seriousness of the issue, and that Hellman intended to pursue it, she began to worry about her finances. McCarthy had only about $63,000 in savings, while Hellman was a wealthy woman (she owned the copyrights to Hammett's work as well as the royalties from her memoirs and plays) who someone had convinced her lawyer to take her case pro bono. It was clear that Hellman's intention was to bankrupt McCarthy.

McCarthy's lawyer argued that McCarthy's comments were literary criticism, which was protected by the First Amendment. "The fact is Mary's a critic with a right to make judgements, and Lillian Hellman's a public figure," Dwight MacDonald, a friend and fellow writer claimed (Writing Dangerously, Brightman, page 601). Her lawyers claimed that her quip was "rhetorical hyperbole." However on television, it sounded defamatory.

McCarthy apparently knew that the question was going to come up in the television interview. Her friend Frani Muser remembered talking about Hellman with McCarthy the morning of the interview. "She knew it was coming," (Writing Dangerously, page 610). Muser added that the remark about "everything she writes is a lie including "and" and "the" came from a Paris Metro interview, and they had joked about it. Clearly McCarthy thought it was just a funny quip on a literary television show on a public television station.

The minute the news hit, the literary world immediately weighed in on either side. Diana Trilling, William F. Buckley, Irving Howe, and Dwight MacDonald weighed in. No stranger to literary feuds himself, Norman Mailer took it upon himself to play peacekeeper, with his article in The New York Times entitled an "Appeal to Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy." Needless to say his efforts were not rewarded, especially by Lillian Hellman, who was known to hold grudges and could be spiteful. According to one of her biographers, Carl Rollyson, she was one of four people who sued Nixon to get the Watergate tapes released. When she called Dick Cavett to ask him why he hadn't defended her against Mary McCarthy, Cavett suggested that Hellman come on the show to defend herself. Hellman refused. The idea of having to defend herself against a charge of dishonesty was anathema to her. To the public at large it must have looked like two cranky old ladies bitching at each other.

Mailer even used the defense that McCarthy was attacking a frail bird who was half-blind. This was despite the fact that Hellman was still feisty enough to threaten to scream if her nurse didn't give her a cigarette. At the time of the lawsuit, Hellman was 72 and looked older and McCarthy was a still good-looking woman of 65. By the time, Hellman died 5 years later, McCarthy had aged considerably. While the lawsuit probably invigorated Hellman and kept her alive, the stress took its toll on McCarthy.

What was the source of the enmity between Hellman and McCarthy. Was it political or personal? Was it out and out jealousy of one well regarded but lesser known writer against a more popular and rich author? Some say the feud started because Hellman either slept with or attempted to seduce McCarthy's lover at the time, Philip Rahv, the editor of The Partisan Review. Hellman's lawyer Ephraim London believed that it was simple jealousy, while McCarthy was revered, she wasn't nearly as successful as Hellman whose memoirs had each spent weeks on the best-seller lists. McCarthy's friends felt that Hellman was jealous that McCarthy was an intellectual, accepted by the New York literati, and Hellman was seen as the author of several well-made but melodramatic plays.

Others saw it as a continuation of the feud of the anti-Stalinists of which McCarthy was an early member vs. the Stalinists which included Hellman, Hammett, and other left-wing liberals who continued to defend Stalin long after his crimes had been made public. Hellman once chastized Kruschev for turning against Stalin, she felt he was disloyal. Although she claimed not to know anything about the Moscow purge trials, Hellman had signed petitions applauding the guilty verdicts and encouraged others not to cooperate with a committee that sought to establish the truth behind the trials. McCarthy, herself, said that the enmity was personal. She hated what she saw as Hellman's attempts to make herself look more like a heroine at the expense of others. Her ire was particularly incensed by Hellman's memoir Scoundrel Time. "I mean you'd read this goddamn Scoundrel Time and you'd think she went to jail almost!" (Writing Dangerously, Brightman, page 604).

For those of us born after the McCarthy era, it can be hard to understand how the wounds from that time continued to fester even thirty years after the fact. Witness the outpouring of vitriol when Elia Kazan was given an honorary Oscar several years ago (the closest I can come up with is the anti-war hippies vs. the men who actually served in Vietnam). The feud between McCarthy and Hellman dredged up memories of a time that people had long tried to forget. The anger of those who saw Hellman taking credit for doing something (talking about herself, but not naming names before HUAC) that others had done before her.

On the surface, both women seemed to have a lot in common. Both came from troubled childhoods. McCarthy, who was seven years younger than Hellman, lost both her parents in the influenza epidemic in 1918 when she was 5 years old. She and her brothers were left in the care of their paternal grandparents who found it difficult to all of a sudden have three children to take care of. Instead McCarthy and her brothers were under the direct care of an aunt and uncle who were abusive. McCarthy eventually ended up living in Seattle with maternal grandparents. Hellman spend her childhood shuttling between the boarding house in New Orleans owned by her father's unmarried sisters, and an apartment in New York. A Daddy's girl, she had no use for her mother, who she considered weak. While McCarthy went to Vassar, where she felt out of place amongst the rich girls, Hellman dropped out of NYU after two years. Both married and divorced young, both started their careers in the early thirties, McCarthy writing theater reviews and Hellman as a playwright. Both early in their careers were known more for being the girlfriend of prominent men, Hellman with Dashiell Hammett, her companion for the next thirty years, and McCarthy first with Philip Rahv, and then with her second marriage to Edmund Wilson.

While Hellman had initially wanted to become a novelist, McCarthy had ambitions to acting and playwrighting. Her first husband Harald Johnsrud had been an actor and playwright. Hellman had dabbled in writing short stories, succeeding in getting two of them published. She had also worked as a reader at MGM, when her husband Arthur Kober had been hired as a screenwriter. It was in Hollywood that Hellman met Dashiell Hammett, then the celebrated author of The Maltese Falcon and The Dain Curse. It was Hammett who steered Hellman towards the case that became the basis of The Children's Hour and encouraged her to try playwrighting.

Hellman and McCarthy had only met a few times in their lives, the most notable being at Sarah Lawrence College in 1947, at a dinner party thrown by the college president, Harold Taylor, to discuss a writer's conference. McCarthy attended as did Stephen Spender who was also teaching at the college. Hellman was an invited guest. Just before dinner, McCarthy overheard Hellman flippantly telling a group of students that the writer and painter John Dos Passos had sold out the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War because "he didn't like the food in Madrid." Incensed, McCarthy stormed in and proceeded to tell the students that if they wanted to know the truth about Dos Passos's change of heart, they should read his book, Adventures of a Young Man. Hellman, in turn, was not pleased at being dressed down in front of a group of students. The next year, McCarthy and Dwight McDonald were a handful of anti-Stalinists who infiltrated the Waldorf Conference in 1948.

McCarthy's case was struck a blow in early 1984, when Justice Harold Baer Jr. denied her motion to dismiss the suit. The judge stated that "to call someone dishonest, to say to a national television audience that every word she writes is a lie, seems to fall on the actionable side fo the ine - outside what has become known as the 'marketplace of ideas.'" He also agreed with Hellman's lawyer Ephraim London's contention that Hellman was not a public figure. This despite her years as a well known playwright whose works had been performed as far away as Moscow, whose books had regularly hit the best seller lists, and who had appeared in one of Blackglama mink's famous "What Becomes A Legend Most" ads.

As part of her defence, McCarthy began to go comb through Hellman's memoirs looking for inconsistencies, and places where she might have out and out lied. She was helped in this endeavor by the journalist Martha Gellhorn, who devoted 16 pages to Hellman in forty page article in The Paris Review denouncing what she called Apocryphiars. While McCarthy concentrated her defense on the memoirs An Unfinished Woman and Scoundrel Time, others were quick to question the section called simply 'Julia' of Hellman's second memoir Pentimento.

Enter Muriel Gardiner Buttinger.

Ever since Pentimento came out, Gardiner's friends had questioned whether or not she was the inspiration for Julia. Their stories were similar. Like Julia, Gardiner was an American from a wealthy background. Her father was Edward Morris, the president of Morris & Company, a meat-packing business, but her mother was a member of the Swift family. From her early childhood, she was aware of the differences between her station in life and the poor around her. She developed a life-long commitment to social and political reform.

Gardiner graduated from Wellesley College in 1922, and traveled to Europe to continue her studies. Like Hellman's Julia, she studied at Oxford. Initially she went to Vienna hoping to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud (Hellman's Julia was analyzed by Freud). Instead she received a degree in medicine from the University of Vienna. After marrying Joseph Buttinger, the leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialist movement, she became involved in anti-fascist activities. Used the code name: Mary as she smuggled passports, money, and offered her home to anti-fascists, before finally leaving Austria in 1939 with her husband and child. Gardiner became a noted psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who edited The Wolf-man by the Wolf-Man, a case history of a wealthy young Russian who went to Vienna in 1910 to be psychoanalyzed by Freud.

The main difference between Gardiner's story and Hellman's Julia was that Gardiner and her child lived while Julia was beaten severely by the Nazi's and died, and her child was also eventually killed by the Nazi's in an improbable circumstances.

While Hellman claimed never to have met Gardiner, Hellman’s lawyer Wolf Schwabacher was also a friend of Gardiner, and had knew Gardiner’s story. Gardiner stated that Schwabacher often talked about his famous client, so it is hard to believe that Schwabacher didn’t mention to Hellman that he had a friend who had been part of the underground in Vienna. At the time of the publication of Pentimento, Gardiner claimed that she had written to Hellman who said that she never received the letter. Gardiner later wrote an account of her story, although she never claimed that she was Julia. Eventually she had planned on suing Hellman for appropriating her story but Hellman died before the suit could be filed. Hellman never revealed who the real ‘Julia’ was, she claimed at the time that there reasons why her true name could not be revealed, among them the idea that she might have been sued, although Julia was dead. Another excuse that she gave was that the Germans were still persecuting early Anti-Nazi's.

In 1983, Gardiner's own memoirs, Code Name: Mary was published by Yale University Press. An article by Edwin McDowell entitled "New Memoir Stirs 'Julia' controversy' was published in The New York Times. Both the Yale University press release and the book's dust jacket declared that many people believed that Dr. Gardiner's story was the model for Hellman's Julia. However, Hellman responded, "she may have been the basis for someone else's Julia but not certainly not mine."

Still the matter would not rest. Journalists began to examine the story closely and inconsistencies began to pop up. While Hellman insisted that 'Julia' was not the woman's real name, in the story Julia says that the 17th Century poet John Donne must have written his poem entitled Julia with her in mind. In an earlier story in An Unfinished Woman, Hellman had described a woman named Alice that she had worked with who had the same exact story as Julia's. Ephraim London begged Hellman to release the name of the real 'Julia' but Hellman refused. Gardiner, however, questioned others who had been part of the resistance with her, if they knew of any other American woman who was studying in Vienna who had been part of the resistance. The answer was always 'only Mary,' Gardiner's own code name. Even the archives of the Austrian resistance, contain no information of another American woman with a similar background to Gardiner's. No other friends of either Hellman's or Julia's came forward to confirm her story. They couldn't have all have been dead. Apparently none of Hellman's friends had ever heard the story of Julia until Pentimento came out.

The crux of the Julia story in Pentimento was Julia asking Hellman to smuggle $50,000 in a fur hat for use of the Resistance. Hellman and Julia agreed to meet in Berlin. This is were the inconsistencies come in, everything from the timetable of Hellman's trip to Moscow via Berlin, the need for at least 8 operatives to help Hellman on her journey to deliver the money for Julia, to the reasons why Julia needed Hellman to smuggle the money all. Even the ship that Hellman supposedly took to bring Julia's ashes back to New York came into question.

In June of 1984, Hellman passed away at the age of 79, leaving the fate of the lawsuit hanging in the air. Her executors decided not to continue with the case, which incensed McCarthy who was eager to have her day in court. When she heard about Hellman’s death, McCarthy said ''If someone had told me, don't say anything about Lillian Hellman because she'll sue you, it wouldn't have stopped me. It might have spurred me on. I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that.'' McCarthy herself passed away in 1989 at the age of 77.

The case began a debate that has continued to this day with the James Frey/JT Ellroy/Augustin Burroughs memoirs. When is it okay in a memoir for an author to a) invent events out of whole cloth b) exaggerate events for dramatic purposes or c) appropriate other's experiences as their own? There are authors and critics who come down on both sides of the fence. The problem comes when the distortions make the reader question whether anything they have read is true. There is an unwritten contract between the reader and the author while reading a memoir or a work of fiction. When that is violated, it can leave the reader feeling like a chump, sold a bag of goods, a hollow feeling. While one expects that some liberties might be taken (no one's memory is infallible), one doesn't expect out and out lies presented as truth.

McCarthy was known throughout her life for seeking out the truth in her memoirs, she would go back again and again to the same events, even at the expense of her friends and family, in her need to seek out the truth. She was noted for her sharp tongue, for her ability in her criticism to take on writers that she considered overrated. Hellman, on the other hand, while polite on the surface was full of anger. She used her memoirs to get back at those people who she felt had slighted her.

But did Hellman lie in her memoirs? Or was she convinced that she was telling the truth? That Julia did exist? That events happened in An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time the way she wrote them? In William Wright's Biography of Hellman, Lillian Hellman, The Image, The Woman, he relates an anecdote from Diana Trilling, where Hellman was convinced that Trilling was two years older than her, even though they were the same age. Hellman was also almost pathologically protective of Hammett's legacy and her role in it. She fired one biographer after reading three chapters. "Where am I in all this?" she asked him. She finally hired noted novelist Diane Johnson to write Hammett's biography and then browbeat the woman into not including any material she found in her research that contradicted anything that Hellman had written in her three memoirs. That included Hellman's contention that she had tried to raise money for Hammett's bail after he had been sentenced to prison for contempt, when the reality was that she had nothing to do with it. Hellman's stories about had been so convincing that they were repeated in other biographies that were written about him as fact.

But there was an even bigger issue at stake than just what is truth in memoirs and that is the First Amendment issue. In his "An Appeal to Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy" which appeared in The New York Times, Mailer argued that for Hellman to win the case would mean that it would become difficult for other writer's to criticize each other's work, although he took exception to McCarthy's assertion that Hellman's writing was dishonest.

When the Founding Fathers drafted the constitution, they had no crystal ball nor was Nostradamus around to predict the role of radio, television and the internet on free speech. The issue was considered so serious that Floyd Abrams, a constitutional lawyer who defended The New York Time's right to print The Pentagon Papers, joined McCarthy's legal team, after McCarthy's motion to dismiss the lawsuit was denied. Hellman's lawyer urged her to settle, he was afraid that she would lose the case, with all the evidence that McCarthy's legal team had amassed but McCarthy would have none of it.

But in the end both women lost in the court of public opinion. One wonders today how Hellman would have fared on Oprah. Would she have been given the James Frey treatment or would Oprah have put on the Hermes gloves? In the years since her death, Hellman has seen the systematic dismantling of her reputation as a writer in regards to her memoirs as biographer after biographer tabulates the factual errors and downright lies. It’s almost become a cottage industry. Five new biographies have been published; she’s been the subject of a fawning TV movie starring Judy Davis, and several plays have been written about her, the most recent being The Julia Wars by William Wright (one of her biographers). Of her plays, only The Children’s Hour, and The Little Foxes are revived frequently.

Mary McCarthy, as in life, has had to settle for a little less, two recent biographies since her death in 1989. Her brother, the actor Kevin McCarthy, is probably better known than she is to the public at large. Her biggest success, The Group, seems quaint now compared compared to the sexual candor of recent fiction. Her memoirs, especially Memories of a Catholic Schoolgirl, and How I Grew, however, are held up as some of the finest examples of the genre. When people think of the two women now, invariably the lawsuit comes up, it has now become in a way their epitaph.


Lillian Hellman, The Image, The Woman: William Wright
Telling Lies in Modern American Biography – Timothy Dow Adams
Seeing Mary Plain – Frances Kiernan

Writing Dangerously - Carol Brightman
Imaginary Friends – Nora Ephron
Hellman & Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett – Joan Mellen
Lillian Hellman: A Life With Foxes and Scoundrels – Deborah Martinson
Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy – Carl Rollyson


“Julia” & Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman – Samuel McCracken (Commentary Magazine, June 1984)
Lillian, Mary and Me – Dick Cavett (The New Yorker, December 16, 2002)
“Who Was Julia?” – Alexander Cockburn (The Nation, February 23, 1985)
“Lillian Hellman Wins Round in Suit,” Marcia Chambers (The New York Times, May 11, 1984)
“Reading and Writing; Literary Invective,” Walter Goodman (The New York Times, June 19, 1983)
“An Appeal to Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy,” Norman Mailer (The New York Times, May 11, 1980)


Thank you! That was an incredibly interesting article. I knew nothing about either of the women, and now I'm eager to find out more.
Thank you for stopping by and reading it. Both women were fascinating characters, and brilliant writers. Lillian Hellman is still one of the most successful playwrights in the world, and Mary McCarthy's criticism and memoirs are still worth reading today.
Very interesting! I never know quite what to make of Lilian Hellman and her Julia stories. I really love her play "The Little Foxes."
Thanks Elena. The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest are two of my favorite plays. I never really bought the Julia story when I first read Pentimento,(although I did enjoy the movie) and now I know why.
StrandThreeofWe said…
Really interesting article! I have been reading lots of Hellman of late, (favourite plays are Little Foxes and Watcher on the Rhine) and even though her plays to me seem dated and almost unstageable now, her memoirs are beautifully written.
I always wondered about this rumour that hangs around her like a bad smell that she is a liar. It has like you say almost become her epitaph.
Unknown said…
This is a concise thorough well-written article. Good work.
Unknown said…
This is a fine piece of work. You could perhaps have given Mary McCarthy a bit more credit. I've been reading her memoirs recently, and find her to be an excellent non-fiction writer. She earned real respect from Vladimir Nabokov as well as from Edmund Wilson.
adrienne said…
I found your blog after reading Nora Ephron's new book & googling Hellman-McCarthy to learn more about the feud. Thanks for the enlightenment!
Anonymous said…
Very interesting blog! I appreciate your efforts and valuable time spent on this blog. Keep sharing interesting articles..

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Love this blog. I just found it when looking up Mary McCarthy after reading McCarthy's notorious 1944 New Yorker story, "Weeds," in the NYer archives. My reading it was prompted by a NYer story from this past summer, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/06/mary-mccarthy-edmund-wilson-and-the-short-story-that-ruined-a-marriage.html describing "Weeds" as a roman a clef in which the protagonist, presumably a stand-in for McCarthy, describes vividly her internal states - in particular her loathing for a husband who didn't understand her and who crushed her creativity and vitality. McCarthy's briliance, her psychological insight, and yes, her cruelty shone in this story. McCarthy ultimately did leave husband Edmund Wilson.
Lillian Hellman had a private life with people that no one actually knows about. She did know Winifred Jenkinson (Jenkins in the film, "Julia", starring Meryl Streep). I have met her grand children. Winifred married the the doctor who reserved the room for Lillian in Vienna. Mentioned as "Zimmer", which actually means room in German. Hellman states that she changed the names of people and places as well as street names in her story, however the story is true. I have researched this story for an number of years. I also know the baby. She is 76 years old mow, and yes, she is a daughter of royalty. Someone who lived in Edinburgh. I have photographs of Hellman with Romanian, German, Russian and Spanish exiled royalty at Ahlbeck, Germany in 1937. Hellman was well connected among those of socialist views. Her play, "Watch On The Rhine", mentions the Romanians. Mary McCarthy had to have been jealous!
pal ashford said…
"Hellman's penchant for untruth is indisputable as you clearly point out. But McCarthy's allegiance to fact, on the other hand, is more nuanced than you write. Central to McCarthy's work is the idea that no one ever gets their own life right. A bright thread of anxiety about how much she has invented runs through all of her autobiographical writings. She footnotes her memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood with italicized corrections to emphasize the impossibility of truthful reminiscence. Over the course of her life, she wrote extensively about her own distortions of fact. All her novels take as their subject the spectacular delusions people have, the lies they tell themselves. And so the real McCarthy never had the schoolmarmish passion for fact, the rigid belief in the possibility of truth, that you attribute to her. In fact, McCarthy was accused of sins not entirely dissimilar to the ones that have tarred Hellman. In her legal papers, there is an impressive collection of Hellman's lies. But McCarthy's outrage about this pilfering cannot have been as straightforward as it seems. Throughout her career, she herself was charged with using and caricaturing other people's lives—by Edmund Wilson, by Philip Rahv (who went so far as to bring a lawsuit for his portrayal in The Oasis), by various Vassar women who saw shards of themselves in The Group. So, the idea of borrowing from other people's experience, along with all the distortions and writerly immoralities it entails, cannot have been as purely horrifying to McCarthy as you portray. In some way, McCarthy was blaming Hellman for qualities she knew herself to be guilty of. She saw her own lapses in integrity mirrored in Hellman, in an exaggerated and distorted form. Hellman, for her part, thought of McCarthy as being frivolous in her politics, taking them up at cocktail parties for whimsical reasons. I think it is more accurate to say that McCarthy and Hellman despised each other not because they were different, but because they saw some glimmer of themselves in each other."

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